TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - When Associated Industries of Florida wanted to get a bill passed about an obscure metal-theft issue, the business lobbying group turned to Cory Tilley to sell the idea to lawmakers and the public.
Tilley, a onetime spokesman for former Gov. Jeb Bush and founder of the CoreMessage public relations firm, and his team created the "Floridians for Copper and Metal Theft Prevention" coalition and circulated a heart-tugging story of a Miami pedestrian struck and killed by a car on a road that had been left in the dark after metal thieves dismantled a streetlight for its copper wires. The bill passed.
It's not a new idea, but more and more lobbyists are relying on PR firms like Tilley's to pitch their messages to media outlets and lawmakers in an attempt to sway public opinion and make it easier to win votes for or against issues.
Out-of-state gambling giants like Las Vegas Sands and Genting relied heavily on Tallahassee PR firms in 2012 in a failed attempt to convince the Legislature to approve "destination resort" Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida. Gambling will be front-and-center during the 2014 legislative session, and players on all sides are recruiting aid from PR firms to boost their odds of success.
The messaging is as important as the lobbying on some issues, said Tallahassee lobbyist Nick Iarossi. He has hired a firm headed by Ron Sachs, who served as communications chief to the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, to handle PR for gambling client Las Vegas Sands.
"If your messaging is off in the press, you're never going to get a legislator to vote a certain way. So providing the political cover from a PR perspective allows for an easier pathway to a lobbying success," Iarossi said. "And it can work the other way just as importantly. If you're in opposition to an issue, ensuring that the press is aware of the negative consequences of a certain piece of legislation is key to defeating that piece of legislation."
Public relations pros handle social media, create coalitions like the one that helped secure passage of the anti-metal theft law and make sure lawmakers and the press hear from "real people" concerned about particular issues. Like CoreMessage and Sachs Communications, many of Tallahassee's numerous PR firms are staffed or founded by communications professionals who built relationships with the media while working as spokesmen for the state's top elected officials, political parties or state agencies.
Unlike paid advertising about issues, "earned media," or news stories, lend an air of authenticity that resonates with lawmakers, Tilley said.
"If lawmakers and decision-makers see a series of positive stories about an issue, they're much more likely to look at this from a credible perspective as opposed to a special interest looking for a legislative change," he said. "The more third-party voices that we're able to bring to the table in those stories helps because (lawmakers) see there's people out there that want these changes made. It's a constant battle to try to define your issue and if you can define it in the media in a positive manner you've got a leg up on your competition."
The link between lobbyists and PR has boomed over the past five years, and it isn't going to subside, said Sarah Bascom, president of Bascom Communications & Consulting.
"Adding a PR firm to the budget or the team used to be a luxury. Now it's becoming more and more of a necessity and an expected expenditure," she said.
Although many reporters might disagree, Bascom said she considers firms like hers as "conduits to the media" rather than media lobbyists.
"We call the client and say you need to call that reporter back. They may say they don't like to talk to the press. Our answer is you can either attempt to educate and influence a story or sit back and let it happen to you," said Bascom, who was a spokeswoman for former Senate President Jim King.
Lobbyist Keyna Cory and her husband, Jack, also handle public affairs for their clients, and the demand for those services is growing, she said.
More lawmakers are relying on polls before coming out and advocating for or against an issue, Keyna Cory said. The right kind of messaging can help sway public opinion, she said.
"If they want to sponsor a bill on widgets, they're going to ask their community how they feel about widgets. They may not know. So they gauge how the community feels about the issue. That's where PR firms can be a great help," Cory said.
Publicity can also give the appearance that there is widespread support for an issue, especially when there is mounting opposition to it.
Justin Sayfie, whose website "Sayfie Review" is the go-to source for lobbyists and PR firms to advertise their issues, pointed to the recent rift over a possible military strike against Syria. Leaders like President Barack Obama sometimes need "air cover" before making decisions, Sayfie said.
"Someone said today that if the president wants members of Congress to vote (for) the authorization of force in Syria, he's got to make the case to the American people so the legislators will feel they have support. The same is true really of any issue that anybody is advocating in Tallahassee. It's becoming more and more important to ensure that you're making the case to residents and voters," Sayfie said. "If the people support your issue, then you've got a better chance in Tallahassee."
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